How research is helping fisherfolk in Myanmar to co-manage their fishery

In Myanmar, small-scale leasable fisheries have typically been controlled by a well-off leaseholder. Following the adoption of a new Ayeyarwady fisheries law in 2018, fishing communities are being supported to jointly manage leasable fisheries with the Department of Fisheries (DoF), universities and local NGOs. 

This is a significant step towards achieving a sustainable fishery management system that is more equitable for the many millions of rural households who depend on small-scale fisheries for food and income.

“By being in a fishing group together, we are now a union as opposed to single individuals. Like this we can solve our livelihood problems together,” says U San Myint, chair of the community fishing committee in Papin, a 200-household village in the Ayeyarwady Delta.

Committees address key challenges to local fisheries

The Ayeyarwady Delta and Central Dry Zone are the priority fish production areas in Myanmar. This is due to the thousands of waterbodies and river systems connected to floodplain fisheries. 

The 2012 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law allowed the conversion of areas within floodplains to large aquaculture ponds. The latter often encroach on leasable fisheries and also interrupt the connectivity between floodplains and river systems, which provide migration routes for many important fish species. For local fisherfolk, many of whom rely solely on fishery activities for their income, this has increased their vulnerability.

To help address this challenge, community fishing committees are being established in the Ayeyarwady Delta as part of the Improving Fishery Management in Support of Better Governance of Myanmar’s Inland and Delta Fisheries project (MYFISH2).

The project is led by WorldFish through FISH in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries in Myanmar. Funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the four-year project (2017–2020) engages with a range of partners through the Fisheries Research Development Network.

Daw Cho Mar preparing fish for breakfast.

“The committees have responsibility for creating local laws and regulations to address key challenges and threats in their local fishery,” explains Michael Akester, MYFISH2 Project Leader and Country Director of WorldFish Myanmar. 

WorldFish research shows that the community-based fisheries management (CBFM) model is efficient in minimizing illegal fishing, which involves destructive fishing methods that use electrofishing, explosives and poison. 

“After receiving training from the project and local NGOs, many of the fisherfolk that previously fished illegally now have a better understanding of the damage caused and have access to an improved fishery benefiting the community,” Akester says.

"Great benefits" of management committee 

In 2017, the Network Activities Group (NAG), a project partner, assisted WorldFish in establishing a CBFM committee in Papin.

Daw Cho Mar, who runs a small business as a ‘collector’ buying locally caught fish and selling it in the nearby Maubin township market or in the capital Yangon, decided to join.

“I thought there would be great benefits in joining,” she says of the committee, which today has eight members (six men and two women), including a DoF District Fisheries Officer.

“Before, there was only one owner who had the rights to the business and the leased floodplain fishery, but now we are an association of 711 fisherfolk with a management committee that can share the access to it,” she says.

Previously, Daw Cho Mar and her husband U Tin San paid the equivalent of USD 1932 every year to access the leasable fishery. Now, they pay USD 10 as a collective together with the other members. 

This is one of several benefits of the association, says U Tin San. “Since we became members, we have been able to borrow money for our fishing business, for example for fishing equipment. We can get support with a small interest rate. This has enabled us to invest in our shop and the things we make to sell.” 

Daw Cho Mar in her store buying fish from fisherman.

Involving women in decision-making

Women in Myanmar actively participate in small-scale fisheries. For example, women make or mend nets or process, cook and sell fish. 

Yet women have less access to and control over resources than men and face harmful social norms. This limits their ability to engage in decision-making processes about small-scale fisheries at the household and community levels. 

To help close this gender gap, the project is targeting a minimum of 25 percent women’s participation in the committees. This is done by encouraging women to join and providing advice about postharvest quality control and food safety aspects regarding value-added products. 

Daw Cho Mar is actively involved in her community’s committee. She is able to contribute to decisions regarding the management of the fishery to ensure sustainable resource use and opportunities for value-adding.

She is also training her youngest daughter, Ma Nwe Nwe Wah, to run the family fish business—buying and selling fresh fish and making dried or fermented fish products—following advice provided by the project. “I am happy I get to learn this from my mom. She is the only woman in this community who has a business of her own. I am proud of her,” Ma Nwe Nwe Wah says.

Shifting national policy

In Myanmar, fisheries and aquaculture are estimated to employ more than 3 million people and benefit 12–15 million people. Fish products are the most important sources of animal protein.

To maximize small-scale fisheries production in a sustainable way, MYFISH2 has been collaborating with and providing guidance to the Myanmar Government. This contributed to the modification of the Ayeyarwady fisheries law in April 2018. 

The new law was informed by MYFISH research in 2012–2016 characterizing all floodplain fisheries across Myanmar as well as ongoing research using socioeconomic and environmental-biological baseline studies at 14 representative sites in the Ayeyarwady Region. 

Daw Cho Mar and her daughter run a store selling fish and fish products.

“The research provides a picture of how the floodplain and other inland fishery systems work as well as establishing monitoring indicators. This knowledge enables the community and fishery department to assess together what improvements can be made,” Akester says, noting that the research will also help to promote uptake of CBFM in marine and inland fisheries across Myanmar. 

MYFISH2 builds on the efforts and learnings of MYFISH1 (Improving Research and Development of Myanmar’s Inland and Coastal Fisheries; 2012–2016), which focused on institutional capacity building and an improved characterization of fisheries management systems.

This long-term approach is ensuring that Myanmar’s fisheries are developed sustainably and deliver enhanced incomes and food security for small-scale fishing households, particularly vulnerable groups.

This story was adapted from an article written by Majken Schmidt Søgaard for ACIAR. Republished with permission. All photos except header photo by Majken Schmidt Søgaard.